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Asteroid Defense Presents Heavenly Opportunity


The Earth (SNA)

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — Threats to humankind do not only come from within, and while it may still sound like science fiction to many, the possibility of a sizable asteroid impacting Earth remains a major concern for the space and national security communities. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi recently reminded the public of this fact, and furthermore called for an international effort to detect and deflect incoming celestial bodies.

Given the advanced capabilities of the Russian space program, Moscow would be a much welcome partner in such an enterprise. Furthermore, a number of leading Russian voices have also commented on this threat recently.

Thus, in addition to protecting humankind from an outer threat, an international space defense program may promote cooperation among some of the leading powers of the world. The connection between space and missile defense could reinforce even further that cooperation, since this is precisely an area causing a lot of friction between Russia and NATO, and one where Tokyo has been making a major effort in partnership with Washington.

In contributing its advanced technology, Tokyo may facilitate Russian-Western cooperation in this sphere.

Noguchi launched his proposal at a media conference in New York, where he and other former astronauts warned about the danger from the skies and called upon governments to act against the threat of asteroids on a potential collision course with Earth. He said, “The very first step is to find where those objects are and track them.”

The conference took place on October 28 and featured three former astronauts from the United States, as well as one from Romania. The event was presented by the Association of Space Explorers, an organization bringing together space crew members. The site chosen was the American Natural History Museum.

The astronauts defended a three-track approach to the problem. First, improving detection capabilities; second, conducting preliminary tests on asteroid deflection; and third, fully integrating the asteroid threat into civil defense plans.

Concerning the first of these approaches, they called upon national governments to help fund a space-based telescope to be placed in orbit by 2020. In order to support this proposal, they reminded their audience that only 1% of asteroids posing a potential danger to Earth had been detected to date.

With regard to the first tests on how to deflect an asteroid, they would like them to be conducted within the decade. This would be the way to deal with smaller asteroids, while those bigger than 150 meters in diameter would need to be fractured first.

Finally, they said that they wanted asteroids included in “national disaster plans and budgets” and that each country should designate its national space agency as the government body responsible for responding to asteroid threats.

For the five astronauts, the detection of dangerous asteroids and their deflection and or destruction when necessary constitutes not only a priority but also one of the most important space missions. This was emphasized by former US astronaut Edward Lu, who said that it was “the culmination of all of our space knowledge.”

The February 15 meteor shower in Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring more than 1,500 people, was a stark reminder of the threat posed by the myriad rocks traveling across the heavens. In addition to the media frenzy, it prompted some bilateral meetings between the United States and Russia, with Russian Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov telling the media in June that, “We have decided that the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Russia’s Emergencies Ministry will work together to improve the system of protecting people and territory from cosmic impacts.”

Puchkov added that it would be necessary to develop some new technologies, explaining, “We need new systems of space and other types of monitoring, and we need to rally the efforts of experts, scientists, and professionals. I believe we can make a technological breakthrough in this area if the Emergencies Ministry and FEMA supervise this project and attract the best minds and research groups, including in Canada, Europe, China, and Southeast Asia.”

While the Russian minister did not explicitly mention Japan, Tokyo and Moscow are trying to explore a number of areas where they can increase cooperation. Beyond the obvious field of energy, where Fukushima has radically increased Japan’s need to import hydrocarbons and Russia has been quick to respond, the two countries are making efforts to cooperate in other areas, including the economic development of the Russian Far East.

While technically still at war, with the Southern Kurile Islands-Northern Territories a stumbling block to concluding a peace treaty, the bilateral tensions seem to be lowering.

More to the point, when discussing planetary defense, Japan’s extensive work on missile technology does not attract the same degree of Russian suspicions and criticisms of NATO efforts in this field.

Perhaps Japan could play a significant role in international efforts to deal with the asteroid threats by not only contributing its advanced technologies but also by acting as a bridge between Russia and the West.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona, and Guest Professor at Nagoya University.